Thursday, December 22, 2005

Gideon's Blog

Noah Millman seems to have lost some enthusiasm for updating his blog. I for one hope he keeps at it. A couple of days ago he wrote a very intriguing post on ID, the self, Darwin, etc.

Ultimately I am unpersuaded by some of his arguments, but I have always been impressed with his ability to be able to see the relevant logical connections in these issues and pronounce upon them in an informed manner without claiming to definitively solve them.

"Forget about Darwin; there are already people running around claiming that the self is an illusion, and that's a far greater threat to ethical monotheism of any stripe."

Yes, absolutely. This is exactly the fear of Tom Wolfe I mentioned in my last post.

"I myself find the denial of the self logically problematic; illusions are perceived by selves - no self, no illusion. How then can the self itself be an illusion - who's doing the perceiving? But I recognize that while science has done essentially nothing to illuminate the deep abyss of consciousness itself...."

Again, this is absolutely true and strikes me as being obvious, though for some reason it seems to pass consideration among people who think about such things. In fact, I think that we can even go a bit further than this: the entire totality of science as it has ever been known or practiced is a function of consciousness. Somebody, somewhere has to think up the experiments, write the grant applications, record the readings from the stopwatches or whatever, and publish the papers. If there's no consciousness, there's no science.

"Even if consciousness turns out to be a singularity, it does not strike me as at all impossible that we'll unpack some very large chunks of what we currently attribute to that singularity and discover that they are in fact reducible to physical phenomena governed by law. I can imagine, for example, our discovering that what appears to be free will is, in fact, an illusion, a story we tell ourselves after the fact about how we came to decisions that were not consciously made at all. That's certainly the way my own mind feels to me some days."

This is interesting but ultimately I don't buy it. Noah seems to forget that when two things are logically forged together, you can push as well as pull on the connection between them. Even being your typical generic bourgeois shmoe, the spiritual experiences I have had, exalted and mundane, lead me to believe that my own free will is the most real thing there is, at least as real as Dalton's atomic model for water or some such. It's at least as likely that the epistemological strength of free will can be utilized to falsify erroneous science as it is that science will demonstrate free will as an illusion.

Tuesday, December 20, 2005

Charlotte Simmons

Tom Wolfe is probably the most profound writer of popular fiction today, though not the most prolific one. In A Man in Full, and everything he's written since, he's concerned himself with identity. This isn't the usual academic, PC posturing, "What is the identity of the handicapped, Puerto-Rican lesbian in our poststructuralist society?" stuff. What he's talking about is a little deeper than that.

He's worried that at bottom, we have no souls, just empty personas. The idea that we determine our own destiny is just a sensory illusion our part. In reality, we are buffeted about by the social or scientific forces that are bigger than we are.

The odd thing is that even though he hints, in fiction and nonfiction, that the latest research in neuroscience is leading in this direction, he can't really bring himself to believe it. And the characters in his books, in strange and uncomfortable situations, can still muster the freedom to act and define themselves in their situation anyway.

Charlotte Simmons is a teenage child prodigy who graduates high school from nowhere in Appalachia, and earns a scholarship to Dupont College, a fictionalized Ivy campus, where she is caught unprepared in a vortex of all the pressures associated with the modern university; financial, social, academic, intellectual, etc. But in spite of all these things, things which are real and cannot be minimized or blandly waved away, Charlotte Simmons has a soul, not a "soul", and her difficulties do not change that fact.

"She envied them for being well-born, for having money and all the clothes they wanted, for their natural assumption of social superiority and their actual attainment and enjoyment of it. She admitted this to herself, and it seemed like little more than an observation. For reasons she couldn't have explained, if asked, she no longer felt cowed or intimidated by these people. They were what they were, and she was Charlotte Simmons. I am Charlotte Simmons."

Tuesday, December 06, 2005

Intelligent Design

For reasons I don't completely understand, this has become a hot issue recently.

John Derbyshire has been especially active against ID over on The Corner. The nature of his gripe (at least within the last few days) is very interesting, but ultimately not very persuasive. That is, the supposed "proponents" of ID, Irving Kristol and Gertrude Himmelfarb are not really religious, but wish to prop up religion as a blessing to the populace as a whole. This is odd especially since Kristol and Himmlefarb are not exactly known for their stance on ID, who has other people interested in defending it.

Getting to the main point, it is important to note that Charles Darwin wrote before Gregor Mendel and the advent of genetics as we know it. Therefore, to him the biological relationship between parents and children was largely unknown and therefore could be fluidly postulated based on various observed facts. Now we know the rules of genetic inheritance, and they are fairly rigid, and Darwinism has never really recovered.

That is, according to Darwinism, natural selection, of each population in its own local environment, produces evolutionary pressure toward survival of the fittest in many incremental steps. The result of this process is the amazing diversity of species we see in the world today. Now many commentators have argued, pro and con, that the available evidence in biological history shows this is feasible or otherwise.

Because each of the observable macro changes in evolution depends on thousands or millions of micro changes, so this implies that the micro changes have to be plausible, and they are not. Because modern genetics tells us that mutations are possible and species can be bred for one trait or another, but it is just about impossible to breed one species into another species. In fact, people have tried, but as far as I know this has never been done. If any kind reader has a citation to the contrary, I would be very much obliged to see it.

Recall then, that the Darwinian theory depends on this occurring thousands or millions of times, when as far as we know it hasn't occured once. Now it is true, that alternative explanations to natural selection are thin and poorly developed. ID, which only sort of fits into this category in the first place, is a new discipline. We will be in a position to judge it better when people have been working on it for forty years and we can look back and see what they have done. But for now, we should applaud it as a rejection of simple fideism ("God created the world and the animals in it, and that's just the end of it. Now go eat your peas.") and a determination to study the issue further.

Monday, December 05, 2005

Guns versus butter

Some people have criticized the Adminstration for the expense of the war in Iraq. While there are numerous grounds for criticizing the President, this one is particularly small-minded.

It is largely forgotten but nonetheless a completely noncontroversial fact that during the Presidencies of Eisenhower and Kennedy, defense expenditures were nearly half the federal budget, and recall especially that was during peacetime as well. Now, even after the fiscal burdens related to 9/11; Iraq, Afghanistan, Homeland Security, etc., our defense related expenditures are somewhere a fifth and a fourth of federal outlays, depending on who does the counting.

Whatever Bush has done to increase defense expenditures is dwarved by Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid, Prescription Drug Benefits, Student Loans, Farm Subsidies, etc. It is the central fact of federal fiscal policy that butter costs much more than guns, and that has been the case for forty years. The War on Terror is essentially the cheapest major undertaking the federal government has. The rest of the budget, by comparison is a typical welfare state morass of a modern industrial state. It would stand up to scrutiny much poorer than any defense-related appropriation, except that the political control over such things is much weaker.

We should understand that for good or ill, that the War in Afghanistan, the War in Iraq, the War on Terror, and the things they represent, taken together, are the big, big picture. Ie, epoch-making, civilization-changing. Whether life as we know it exists in the United States forty years from now is crucially dependent on what happens over there. Those who wish to criticize the Administration should bear this in mind, because there is no doubt that the President does.

Friday, December 02, 2005


You know how sometimes the world gets wrapped up controversies that, when you look at it, really aren’t controversial at all, but instead are just a window of the state of mind of the people involved. Sorta like all the anticipation of the verdict in the Scott Peterson trial.

ANWR is like that.

Even though we all consume energy every day, according to some people we should all just pretend that it comes from the energy tooth fairy, because anything involved with the real production of energy is too dirty to be associated with. Or to be precise, it may cause negative environmental impact for one of the herds of caribou that roam northern Alaska.

It is supposed to be obvious why this is a bad thing, but I’m not sure why. I don’t eat caribou. I don’t hunt them, I don’t drink milk from them, I don’t keep them as pets. Nobody else does either, as far as I know. But somehow, out of all the living things of Creation, these particular caribou has to be protected from the spoiling of their habitat.

And surely, if we just drilled an oilfield right in the middle of their habitat, that would sure be the end of the caribou, right? No, actually. The oil companies are only going to drill on a very small part of ANWR, and will not hurt the caribou. But that’s just a bunch of oil company hype, right? No. Prudhoe Bay was opened up to oil exploration 20 years ago, with no adverse effect to wildlife there.

Some people say there’s not enough oil there to make a difference. That’s really rich. It’s as though they wouldn’t deign to pick up a $100 dollar bill lying on the floor because it’s not enough money to solve their lifetime economic needs.

It is true that the amount of oil available for drilling from ANWR is not enough to supply world’s energy needs for the forseeable future, or to end United States energy dependence on foreign nations. But it’s not exactly insignificant either. Let’s say that if ANWR were online right now, it would produce 1.5m bbls/day of oil (that’s a fairly conventional estimate, btw). That would be roughly 2% of current world production of 70m bbls/day. And given the amount of excess capacity in the oil market today, that would be a very useful thing to have. All of this, let’s emphasize, is from one undeveloped oilfield. How on earth do those who oppose ANWR suppose that our energy needs will ever be met if we refuse to tap the easiest source of oil we will ever likely see?

Check out the links below.

"An apple a day keeps the doctor away."

Like most people, I thought this was just a mindless platitude. But fairly recently, it was pointed out to me that people used to mean this quite literally. The idea being, that if you had to see the doctor, you were sick, and being sick was bad. So it was a good idea to do whatever you could to avoid having to seeing a doctor.

As it stands now, going to see the doctor is a good thing. It means we have health insurance, or a referral from the HMO, etc. And when we see the doctor, he is going to figure out what the problem is and do what has to be done to fix it. So by the time we leave the doctor’s office, or shortly thereafter, we will be better.

We all expect that we are entitled to 80 years or so of disease-free, pain-free life, with little or no expense to ourselves. And if we don’t get it, it’s the fault of the medical establishment. When it’s put this way, this seems like a childish, self-indulgent attitude. But, through advances in medical practice, it actually becomes quite plausible train of thought for most of us. Now this is in general a great thing.

But we should realize that this state of affairs occurs for a reason. It is the result of our own preventative health effort, plus a well-functioning health care system, and not just the general state of nature. "An apple a day keeps the doctor away" has more going for it than we generally suppose. At the very least, we should realize that not all the cures and treatments offered by the medical establishment are going to work. And they are going to cost money. A lot of it.

Thursday, December 01, 2005

The Social Utility of Oil Companies

For the Thanksgiving weekend I was staying at a friend’s house in Las Vegas. Over the course of the weekend, I made it to the various casinos Las Vegas has to offer. I was fortunate enough to win a fair bit of money, but that is the exception of course. The gaming companies spend millions and millions of dollars building and maintaining casinos, and this does not happen because they pay off the winners. Okay, well then what do the losers get in return for their gambling dollar? It’s hard to say, really, except for a cheap buffet.

And casinos are not the only ones either. By exploiting certain quirks in the human psyche, there are several kinds of businesses that make a very tidy profit without providing any useful goods or services. Besides the aforementioned casinos, there are horsetracks, payday loan stores, check cashing huts, Paris Hilton photographers, overindulged professional sports franchises, and probably some others I’m forgetting as well. And even if some of these businesses operate at the fringe of respectability, with a little bit of regulation here and there, they all enjoy the freedom to turn their dollar in peace. Why? Well, that’s just the way things are.

In any case, let me get to the point of this little diversion. For some reason, everybody and their brother feels right at home pissing on oil companies; environmentalists, Congressmen, convenience store patrons, editorial writers, whoever. I find this a bit disturbing: we all share the frustration of increasing fuel prices, but there are few if any business concerns as socially useful as oil companies.

I am not intending to exaggerate in the slightest, and a moment’s worth of thought should be sufficient to convince any open-minded person. Out of the ground, they bring us the very lifeblood of our economy, without which life as we know it would be over in days. And, they are literally the only way to get it, for the simple fact oil does not drill itself. And, to provide this miracle for humanity, they engage in manifold hours of hard, dirty, skilled, demanding work, often in obscure places no one else wants to go. And they make a good buck while doing it. But hey, I don’t work for free. Do you?

The next time you have occasion to remember all the things you are thankful for, say a little prayer for the oilman. He needs the company.

Who's afraid of the Religious Right?

Over the last couple of decades, but especially since the 2004 election, there has been much trepidation over the "radical agenda of the Religious Right." And not all of the handwringing is from knee-jerk liberals, either. Putting it that way just makes the whole thing seem a great deal more sinister than it really is. For those who really don’t know, the agenda of the Christian Right primarily revolves around a few issues; things like abortion, judicial appointments, pornography, prayer in schools, etc. Furthermore, their position is in the majority of public opinion on some of these issues, the minority on others, but well within the socially acceptable bounds of discourse on all of them.

When you scratch the surface of this anxiety, usually someone volunteers something to the effect of, "I just don’t approve of them imposing their religious views on the rest of us." This is doubly unfortunate and irritating, because this is not only an unfair description of the political activism of the Religious Right, it is the exact opposite of it. The Religious Right does not impose any belief set on anybody, instead they are leveraging their position as citizens of a secular state.

They pursue their poltical ends exactly the way any legitimate actor in a democracy should: they publish op-eds, they recruit candidates to run in primaries, they hold conferences, fundraise, etc., etc. Whatever success they enjoy represents the success of our political process, not the failure.
What’s really behind this discontent, I suspect, is that people find themselves on the opposite side of one political issue or another, combined with the fear that there are more of them than there are of us. But, those who hold these fears have either not thought the matter through to this point, or that they are ashamed to voice their opinion on the matter. To the extent they are ashamed, this is somewhat justified because this view essentially reduces to the proposition that these religious people have somehow lost their right to engage in the political process just like any other Americans.

This view has no legal warrant, of course, and isn’t very charitable towards our neighbors. But more importantly, it ignores what we know about the sort of people that the religiously motivated tend to be. They are, in greater proportion than the rest of America, law-abiding, taxpaying, family-raising, and taxpaying people, and they live disproportionately in the heartland. If the head of a family of five in Tulsa cannot participate in the political process, who can?

The Free Lunch

Milton Friedman famously claimed that there’s no such thing as a free lunch. If you ever got what you thought was a free lunch, it meant that somebody else was paying the tab. And very likely, that person was going to end up charging it back to you in ways that you couldn’t forsee and might not want.

That seems the best description of our energy situation. Everybody wants to use energy, but no one wants to do the things that allow it to be produced. There are multitudes of examples of this, but Californians who can recall back to 2001 remember the numerous rolling blackouts of that year.

Over at least two decades, the political and regulatory thicket surrounding power plants in California essentially stopped them from being built, and in some cases reduced the capacity of the existing energy base by capping the amount of nitrogen oxides they were able to emit into the atmosphere. When the Internet Age hit and electricity demand increased, California could not provide enough energy for itself, it had to buy it from other states and speculators such as Enron and Dynegy. The way ball bounced at that particular time, weather factors were unfavorable, the other Western states had very little if any power to sell, and the speculators charged what the market would bear, plus a had a few unsavory tricks up their sleeve as well. With this little omelette cooking, the real price of electricity increased dramatically, of course.

At the end of 2001, price spikes had bankrupted several of California’s rate-controlled utilities, plus cost the California taxpayers several billion dollars besides. Now it is asserted, with a fair amount of plausibility, that the blame for the California energy crisis cannot be entirely blamed on NIMBYism and environmental activism. If some regulators or market participants had done this or that differently, the effects might not have been nearly as severe. But none of that would have been an issue if California were able to generate enough energy to meet its own needs. And that comes from the fact that Californians, like many others, wanted the benefits of a stable energy supply, but none of the costs. But there’s no such thing as a free lunch.

Sunday, November 27, 2005

Why Poland?

As some of you who know me are aware, since I left my trading job I have been planning an extensive trip to Poland sometime next year. People have asked me why I plan to do this, and truth be told I have sometimes struggled for an answer, especially one that I can cogently explain.

Let’s start with two important facts of modern Poland. First, that during the later stages of the Cold War, Poland was the flashpoint of resistance to Communism within the Soviet sphere of influence in Europe. Much of the Cold War drama in the Eighties occurred there.

Second, that Poland was the native land of Pope John Paul II. And there are a few things in particular that I think are worth emphasizing. For the entirety of his priesthood, JPII was always an orthodox Catholic in doctrine and morals. But in addition, he built a large philosophical edifice for the subjectivity of the person. That is, that properly understood the human person is an end, not a means. And he is also, at bottom, the first cause of his actions. Things don’t necessarily "happen" to him, but he can and often does freely make his own decision and act upon it. Combining these, we conclude that any system or ideology that reduces the person to a cog in some societal machine is a profound anthropological mistake. This system of thought may not be completely unique to JPII, but he is clearly the leading exponent in its development.

JPII wrote several works in this area. Most popularly, he wrote Love and Responsibility when he was a university professor in Lublin, and he gave The Theology of the Body as a series of General Audiences early in his pontificate. These works are conventionally understood to be about sex and marital relations, and they are, but they are also informed by JPII’s anthropological stance of the person. Professor Wojtyla most completely developed this theory in Person and Act, by all accounts a very difficult work.

I for one am intensely curious about the relationship between these two things. What relationship is there, if any, between Wojtyla’s emphasis on the subjectivity of the person, and the Polish cultural resistance to Communism during the Cold War? Obviously the person of JPII was a profound symbol of resistance as pope, but what about his philosophical ideas? Recall that he propagated those ideas for decades as a priest, teacher, and bishop, in Poland, before he went to Rome. I suspect, though I don’t know, that this infusion of subjectivity into the Polish culture profoundly influenced the resistance to Communism and the formation of Solidarity in ways that have hit the popular consciousness. I am going to Poland, in part, to find out.

Saturday, November 26, 2005

State of Fear?

I read State of Fear, by Michael Crichton on the plane out to LA. After I was done, I realized one great thing about fiction is that for any idea you have, you can assign exactly the amount of credibility you wish it to have simply by carefully choosing which of your characters will propagate it. In State of Fear there’s John Kenner, the genius ass-kicker; Peter Evans, the well-meaning environmental naif; George Morton, the benevolent philanthropist; Nick Drake, the Lex Luther of the tree-huggers, and a few others. Whatever Kenner says is gospel, but Evans’ words are misguided do-gooderism. The plot twists might surprise, but the worldview of the author is obvious: the crises proclaimed by the environmental movement are overblown, especially global warming.

In a literary sense, this might be sort of a disconnect: what kind of eco-thriller is based on the premise that our environmental challenges are not that big a deal one way or the other? In a sense, that’s part of the genius of Crichton’s device. His thesis is that we should be worrying about malevolent political and cultural agendas instead. By comparison, people driving SUVs and minding their own business is pretty small beer. And if people have a problem with this for scientific reasons, it is well-justified historically. Whatever human ills may have been caused by environmental despoilation, they are certainly dwarved by the malevolent political agendas and those who have pursued them.

And it should also be obvious that the environmental movement is strongly attached to a political agenda that may well be a malevolent one. And whether it is or not is dependent on two things. First, on whether the disaster scenarios the environmentalists want to warn us about are, in fact, likely. I personally have a strong hunch that they’re not likely, but like most people, I don’t presume to pronounce definitively on the subject on way or another.

The second consideration is a little more subtle, but probably more important. Is the intent of the environmental movement to serve the human interest, or to dictate it? The cynics among us have little regard for the good motives of the activists, but the issue is unclear even among the environmentalists themselves. There’s a temptation that being in communion with Mother Earth is a more noble thing than the petty concerns of the small-minded people who happen to be our neighbors.

In an addendum, Crichton compares today’s environmentalists with the eugenics movement early in the 20th century. The comparison is unflattering, but at least somewhat legitimate. Crichton is correct to emphasize that at the time, eugenics was thought to have an irreproachable "scientific" pedigree, and in fact its enthusiasts never ceased of proclaiming it. Conscientious environmentalists who object to being lumped together with the eugenicists (which is all of them, I hope) should still allow that those who claim to speak with "scientific" accuracy cannot intimidate the other parties in the crucial cultural debates of our day.